Isn’t it nice when things just work?

There’s something very satisfying about this commercial by Honda, a campaign launched in 2003 to promote the Accord. Every cog, nut, bolt, wheel and piece performs its proper function. A set of connected things — parts, principles or procedures — forms a complex whole and leads to the desired outcome. Why can’t everything be this systematic and successful?

When a system fails in life or in business — who is to blame? The late W. Edwards Deming (1900–1993), renowned statistician, engineer, author and management consultant, would argue the question isn’t “Who?” but “What?”

Dr. Deming insisted that 94 percent of variations observed in workers’ performance levels have nothing to do with the workers. Instead, most of the performance variations are caused by the system, of which those people are but a part. People can’t perform better than the system allows, which he explains in his book The System of Profound Knowledge® (SoPK).

That only leaves 6 percent to special causes outside of the system — user error.

The most effective way to improve and avoid these problems is not to blame others or even yourself, but to improve the system.


When there’s a roadblock or problem, why is our first inclination to blame someone? Deming taught that people often choose to operate in zones of blame, shame or justification, which is an absolute waste of time, energy and money.

He explained that only when we deal above the line — acting with responsibility and accountability — do we progress.

Have you noticed it’s not necessarily that we fail, but what we do when we fail that can make all the difference? We can help ourselves and our coworkers leave behind the temptation to wallow in blame, shame or justification (or in other words, living “below the line”).

Taking Ownership

How can we help employees live above the line? Try what I call the “$2 Rule.”

Successful attorney, author and public speaker Marshall Thurber took the advice from Dr. Deming. Thurber challenged a Fortune 500 company to use the $2 Rule for 90 days: Any time employees chose to deal below the line (blaming someone or something else instead of taking personal responsibility), they had to contribute $2 to jars located throughout the office. All the proceeds were donated to charity. In 90 days, they collected a quarter of a million dollars. A quarter of a million dollars!

While this was a significant windfall for the charity — the greater result was that the exercise raised the employees’ awareness of how often they allowed negativity and blame to permeate their work. That heightened awareness brought about change — the company’s productivity went through the roof, and eventually, everyone got a raise.

I’ve instituted the $2 Rule not only with my employees but with my family, as well. As we make it a fun game that uplifts and teaches responsibility and accountability, the power of the lessons take hold and things begin to change.

Problems in the System

Once blame and justification are set aside, employees can focus on the accuracy of the systems established within the business. To determine and eliminate errors, start with this:

  • Recognize that the organization has many internal and external interrelated connections and interactions instead of looking at each department as an isolated silo.
  • Follow the chain back to the source of the problem when running into a reoccurring issue. Do tests along the way to confirm.
  • Focus on driving long-term results instead of fixating on isolated events.

When all the connections and interactions are in sync, the business can achieve goals like increasing revenue, improving the end product or service, increasing employee productivity and reaching higher company morale.

Dr. Deming said, “The aim of a system for any organization is for everybody to gain — stockholders, employees, suppliers, customers, community, the environment — over the long-term.” Everyone gains when we deal above the line. Shift your focus from blaming — yourself or coworker — to improving the system.

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